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Producing an Independent Documentary Part 4: Festivals & Sales Agents


Andrea HeadshotWaiting to hear back from film festivals about your film’s acceptance or rejection into their program is full of all of the fear and anticipation that high school juniors are well acquainted with; the closest approximation to the terror affiliated with your independent film’s premiere is that associated with which of your chosen universities you will be matriculating at as an eager college freshman.

The big festivals like Sundance or Toronto can be as difficult to get into as the Ivies and the ratio of rejections to acceptances is only increasing with the constant cheapening of the technology we use to make our films. But the truth of the matter is that if you work hard and have just the right amount of luck, you and your film will be successful no matter where you graduate from or what festival hosts your premiere.

However, just like anything else, this is hard to see when you’re in the thick of things. Forest for the trees and all that. Making a film brings up emotions that are so similar to the highs and lows of being a teenager that it is sometimes a wonder anything turns out right. Every step of our process was discussed ad nauseam and decisions that were likely rather unimportant seemed like they might alter the very universe if we didn’t make the right choice.

Photo 1 10.6.13

(L to R) Producer Rebecca Breithaupt, Producer Andrea Adams, Director Eric Walter and Producer Christine Irons at the World Premiere of MY AMITYVILLE HORROR. Fantasia International Film Festival. Montreal, Quebec.  Photo credit: Keith Tutera

Our journey and takeaway advice, in brief:

  • Do the research to figure out the festivals that make the most sense for your film. Have a game plan. Make sure you’re taking into consideration distribution as well, if that’s your ultimate goal. If you’re seeking acquisition, the festivals you choose might be different than if you are doing self-distribution.
  • Tier the festivals that you are interested in and budget accordingly. We had three tiers, the first being the major festivals that the industry attends where acquisitions are made (within reason). The second were the respected mid-level festivals less likely to garner a lot of industry coverage, but still well-known. The third were festivals we thought would be fun or were near places we wanted to go, like our hometowns.
  • Put the festival research and relevant dates into a calendar that you can all refer to often. Put one person in charge of the festival submissions. Use Without a Box whenever possible.
  • Wait until everyone feels extremely comfortable with the cut before submitting. Obviously if you’ve done your research correctly, you should be aiming for certain festival submission dates, but if your film is not ready, don’t submit. Would you rather the programmers see the film at its best or a cut that you aren’t completely on board with? If you can, get extensions on submission dates. They do give them, but you have to ask. The worst that can happen is that they say no.
  • If you have a sales agent or are planning on getting one, try to attach one as soon as possible. The good ones can help with strategy and get answers from festivals in a pinch. We worked really hard to make this happen before accepting our World Premiere festival, but that didn’t work out. Who knows where we would have played if we had gotten someone on board earlier?
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. We declined a festival acceptance early on; while it was a respectable festival, we felt we could aim a little bit higher. Then came months of nail biting before another one said yes. It did end up being higher profile and specific to our core audience, but we definitely took a risk. We also declined our first offer of representation. A lovely group of people wanted to rep our film globally based off seven minutes of edited content we showed them, but we didn’t feel comfortable with all aspects of the contract. We ended up with the amazing Josh Braun representing the film domestically, but it took quite a bit longer to find foreign sales reps that fit. Foreign is the hardest to crack and so it’s extremely important to align with dynamic individuals who will hustle. Our attorneys were kind enough to make some introductions and guided us in the process, so we eventually signed with Highland Film Group.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for filmmaker comps. Everyone knows that indie filmmakers are by and large broke. Not all festivals have a lot to offer, but even if it’s some free drink coupons or a hotel room that’s better than nothing. Again, you never know if you don’t ask.
  • When your film does start playing festivals, go to as many as you can afford. Where else do you have the chance to meet such an energetic enthusiastic group of film lovers? Go to the events, watch other films, talk with the people wandering around looking for electrical outlets. You might end up collaborating with someone on a new project or crashing with them at another festival.

There are so many other tips and tricks that I would like to convey (Don’t sleep! Bring a mobile charging device! Always have snacks on hand because you’ll forget to eat!), but now I’m getting nostalgic and so it’s best to leave off before I start getting annoying. Suffice it to say, I would not mind making films solely to travel the festival circuit if there were somehow a living to be made that way.

Photo 2 10.6.13(L to R) Executive Producer Michael Russo, Director Eric Walter, Producer Andrea Adams and Producer Christine Irons at the US Premiere of MY AMITYVILLE HORROR. Fantastic Fest. Alamo Drafthouse, Austin, Texas. Photo credit: Keith Tutera.

MY AMITYVILLE HORROR  made its World Premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; US Premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas and its European Premiere at BFI London Film Festival. Since then, it has played in several other festivals worldwide, most recently Grimmfest in Manchester, UK on October 4th. If you have specific questions, send me a Tweet or leave a comment below and I am happy to answer!


Andrea Adams

About Andrea Adams

Andrea Adams Spellman is a Colorado transplant who has worked at companies including Anonymous Content, WME Entertainment, Team Todd and Davis Entertainment. She has received credit in Disney’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE ROMANTICS and CHRONICLE. Andrea produced the documentary MY AMITYVILLE HORROR on Netflix, DVD and VOD. Andrea now works for a software company that supports the entertainment industry by day and (attempts to) write by night. Andrea fosters dogs through Much Love Animal Rescue, is a Daughter of the American Revolution and a P.E.O. member. She got married in September 2015 and her current obsessions include her husband's shrimp tacos, Stranger Things and tennis.